I once read that Robert Lewis Stevenson gave his birthday to his friend, Annie. (You might expect this from the author of Treasure Island.) It was said that Annie was born on December 25th and constantly complained about this inconvenience. Mr. Stevenson bequeathed to her all the “rights and privileges in the 13th day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth the birthday of Annie,” so that she could enjoy the “receipt of gifts and compliments.” He said he had no more use of his birthday anyway. Mr. Stevenson’s lawyer took a traditionally dense will, fraught with Latin phrases and lengthy sentences, and tailored it to his client’s wishes. Mr. Stevenson made his will his own.
Of course I do not believe that Annie went out and legally changed all her identification, but I do like to believe she celebrated every year on November 13th. I also like to believe that Mr. Stevenson’s life continued to be celebrated in this small and personal way. This story inspires me to find ways to help my clients leave their friends and family with a little joy and to show them how to make their wills their own.
At this point in my career, I have prepared hundreds of wills. I take pride that no two wills have ever been the same. (And this is not just because I have never had two clients with the same name.) Sure, I sneak in the requisite Latin phrases and I do have a penchant for lengthy sentences, but, though I rely on a formula to make sure that I have included everything necessary, I do not have a form. Personally, I have never found joy in a form.
The most important and very first question that I ask my clients is, “What are your goals?” or, “What brings you in today?” Sometimes they look taken aback and blurt out “Well, I don’t have a will,” or, “I haven’t looked at my will since my children were little.” I could stop there. I could move on and end up drafting them a beautifully-constructed will that avoids all the ugly taxes and keeps the courts out of it as much as possible. These are two goals that all estate planning attorneys know well. But, then, I worry that I’ve just made their will my own.
Usually, after another moment, they will bring up their real concern or desire. Maybe it is a spouse or child or grandchild or friend they really want to see supported financially. Sometimes the worry is about a pet. It could be, too, that there is a specific lake in Wisconsin where they would like their ashes scattered; or that they would like a one hundred dollar bill to be distributed to each person attending their self-described “memorial party.” One client even thought it would be great if they could sign their will in purple pen.
Whatever the wish, it is my job to show my clients how to make their will their own while navigating the best way to make the process easier and more protected for their friends and family. If someone walks in one day and asks me to give away their birthday, I am ready.